Bill hadn’t been to the Gold Coast before; he confirmed his position on the map at every light. As he made his way through the canyon of buildings, he wondered where Theo found to park. After lapping the whole block and not seeing one open spot, he began to feel claustrophobic. It would defeat his entire purpose to leave his flashers on and double park. He reached for the route sheet again, skimming for anything he might have missed, then flipped it over. Someone, possibly Theo, had penciled “VALET” in block letters on the back of the sheet.
It was not without a private sense of irony that he wheeled his rattly Skylark over the hump at the curb and then down into the building’s parking entrance. He stopped at a lowered gate and puzzled over a keypad on a window-height pole, until a uniformed, surly-eyed kid stepped from a booth. Above the booth’s window, a sign in tasteful cursive read, “Complimentary Valet Service, seven a.m. until eleven p.m.”
Bill leaned an elbow out his open window and said, “Petsitter. Here to feed the cat.”
The kid crossed his arms and did not reply. The air was perceptibly cooler down here, and smelled like basement and exhaust. The concrete walls muffled the idle of his engine, and the whole situation felt illicit, like a drug drop in the movies. “Do I—?” he asked.
“I park it,” the valet said, not moving. “Keycode?”
The valet nodded at the keypad by Bill’s elbow.
Squinting at his route sheet, Bill saw an otherwise inexplicable four-digit number beneath the address; he entered the code, and the gate rose before him, and, as if mechanically triggered by this, the valet too started into motion.
Bill gathered his binder and keyring and got out, pausing a moment to watch the valet maneuver his old car into a spot between a sleek black BMW and a sleeker burgundy Jag. Just for fun he imagined him misjudging a distance, and the Skylark’s dull gray bumper gouging the mirror-buffed finish on either side.
Inside the building, the concierge, his salt-and-pepper moustache trimmed with military precision, was wary until Bill again flashed his binder with the PBF logo. Then the man looked away dismissively, his vigilance wasted on a common petsitter.
The elevator was so large Bill couldn’t touch two opposite walls at once, and three full-length, window-sized mirrors made it feel even more spacious. In one corner, a terra cotta planter held a rubber plant, which looked surprisingly healthy for being fake. A string quartet played something dimly tasteful from an overhead speaker. When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open, he stepped forward reflexively before noticing that the number on the wall was not his floor.
A man frowned at an iPhone in the hallway. “Please hold that,” he said without looking up. Beside him, a woman about Bill’s age with a blonde retro gun-moll hairdo tapped the pointed toe of one pump on the floor. The corner of her jaw rotated absently, as if she was used to having gum to chew at times like this.
Bill shifted his binder and keyring, and raised his hand to hold the door. Unable to either stifle an enormous yawn or cover his mouth, he ducked his head, the way he’d smother a cough in his shoulder. He must have inadvertently withdrawn his hand, because the doors began to slide shut; he looked up as the man reached to restrain them. The man’s forearm and wrist tensed, resisting the mechanical pressure, then the doors retracted. He looked Bill over, and his lips twisted like he had bitten into something rancid. With a quick glance back at the girl—she was paying no attention, completely disinterested—he asked, “Can I help you find something?” He pocketed the iPhone and lifted his shoulders slightly up and back, flexing his lats. The effect was more comical than intimidating.
Still, Bill resented the man’s implication. He remembered how the cop had looked at him earlier. “Thanks—but I know where I’m going.”
The man pressed his lips in a tight smile and gestured to the girl. “We’ll ride down with you. Sonia?”
“Yes but,” Bill said, “I’m going up.” He mashed the “Close Door” button, grinding it into its seat and moving his pressure around.
The man yanked his hand back this time when the doors stirred beneath it. He looked hurt, alarmed, and for a moment, Bill did feel like an interloper. Then the brushed chrome doors slid shut. In the second before the elevator started to move, he exhaled, and watched with detached curiosity as his breath fogged the metal before his face. Quickly, the cloud dissipated.
When the elevator next stopped, he double checked the floor number. Instead of a hallway, he looked out this time into a dim wood-paneled foyer, with only one thick door, like an exterior front door to a real house. Beside the door was another keypad, like the one in the garage. He entered the same number, and a deadbolt slid with a rough click. Amazing, he thought, the access granted by a single four-digit number.
The apartment was cold, seriously air-conditioned, but he took a deep breath through his nose and the cooled air eased his lingering headache. The cat, Pitty Sing, watched him for a moment, its white fur puffed, then approached, stridently affectionate. The small tom wound around his shins, yowling plaintively. “Easy, kiddo,” Bill said. “Geez.”
Walking into the kitchen was difficult with Pitty Sing trying to climb his corduroys; Bill repeated soft-sounding words and shuffle-stepped to avoid kicking him. When the cat lodged a claw behind his knee and tried to heave himself up, he reached down and hooked the claw free, then tried to lift the cat, but Pitty Sing wriggled out of his grasp and back to the floor. “Suit yourself, kiddo,” Bill said. His eyelids felt auspiciously heavy.
He looked all of the likely places, but couldn’t find any note Theo had left. He shook his head, but quickly had the litter scooped and bagged, the bag deposited by the door for the trash chute on the way out, the food bowl refilled and the water refreshed. Curiously, Pitty Sing only squawled louder when Bill put down his fresh food, and wouldn’t touch a bite.
“What’s up, little cat?” he asked, but Pitty Sing tensed, swiveling his head at a moving point in the air Bill couldn’t see. Then, the cat sprang straight up, every muscle stretched like an outfielder snatching a near-homer back from the wall, and Bill heard a fly buzz, just before the cat’s paws quashed the sound. Pitty Sing returned to the floor in a crouch, furiously intent until he had squeezed the last bit of buzz from his prize, and then he lost interest. On closer inspection, Bill noticed many fly carcasses on the kitchen tile.
Another fly wove through the air in the hall. Bill proceeded back into the apartment, feeling drowsy already. Really, he couldn’t imagine a better environment: the apartment was large and luxurious in architecture, but thoroughly lived-in, with newspapers yellowing on rickety TV trays and cobwebs in corners. “Sh, sh,” he said to Pitty Sing, who followed, meowing insistently. “Lie down with me. We’ll have a nap.”
He entered a smaller room, an office or study, and rounded the corner onto a gorgeous view of Lake Michigan and the shore stretching off to the north, the water just beginning to darken with late day, and lights from Lake Shore Drive and the harbor coming on. He flipped on a goose-necked writing lamp and looked around the room. A sliding door gave access to a balcony overlooking the lake, and the room had evidently doubled once as a guest room and more recently as impromptu storage: a single bed was piled waist-high with cardboard boxes, folded blankets and loose stacks of paper. To his immediate left stood an imposing disorganized bookcase, many volumes bookmarked repeatedly with flags of newsprint. The shelf at eye level held thick texts on psychology and neurological disorders, with numerous yellowing prescriptions and pamphlets jammed in between. Bill pulled one titled “Living with Cotard’s Syndrome” part way out and skimmed: “Le Délire de Négation,” it read, “a psychosis characterized by the delusion that the sufferer is deceased….”
Centered on the highest shelf, a half-dozen privileged volumes stood between bookends. Bill craned his neck to read their spines: all were from university presses, and had obscure titles like Sonderkommando Elbe, Asymmetrical Warfare, Terrorism: Politics and Precedents, and Manned Weapons: A Conceptual History. All listed, either singly or in collaboration, the same author, Paul Schroeder or P. Schroeder. He was standing in a writer’s home office, an historian’s or psychiatrist’s, he guessed, and it resembled exactly the intellectual cloister one might expect.
It would be far too much work, as well as too intrusive, to clear the mess from the bed, but before moving to another room, his attention was drawn to the writing desk, which must have seen more recent and regular use, as it was conspicuously uncluttered. A pen holder—the kind he remembered from bank lobbies in Iowa, with two pens affixed by flimsy bead chains to a flat piece of marble—sat tastefully to one side, with a tiny ornamental warship on top, as if sailing across the waved marble. An engraved plate read USS Indianapolis CA-35. He knew that story, the cruiser torpedoed in the Pacific, most of the sailors left for days to the sharks or to madness or to drown: now a morbid little piece of desktop memorabilia.
An otherwise clean notepad read If someone asks / about my soul / say mountain cherry blossoms / fragrant in morning sun. A half dozen loose envelopes bespoke the only disorder across the desk itself, and indeed they were almost tastefully arrayed, like a spread of playing cards. Looking closer, he saw they all were addressed and stamped—forgotten, no doubt, in a hurried departure. He drew one fingertip across the envelopes, fanning them further. It would be presumptuous of him to drop them in a post box, or even hand them to the concierge on his way out. Still, it struck him as sad, these letters ready to go in the mail that never made it.
The stamp on the first letter was for twenty-nine cents, which had not been enough for years. He lifted the envelope, touching only the edges, and turned it over in his hands. The paper was dry and somewhat stiff. It was addressed to a Sophie Schroeder, but there was no street, city, or any other information. So: stamped, but apparently not meant for the mail. The flap was loose, unsealed.
The next letter was the same, addressed to a name only—an M. Coves—and anachronistically stamped. He put his finger down at the back of the stack and pulled forward. The smooth paper surfaces whispered against each other like feathers of some night-flying bird. There were perhaps a dozen, and from what he could see of the stamps and the fine discoloration of the envelopes, some were very old. For just a second he experienced a weird telescoping of time, like when he was pasting stamps into a book after grade school, using tiny green glassines, placing each in its requisite spot, the Disney characters from Ghana, the sea turtles and brilliantly colored macaws from Turks & Caicos, but also thumbing through assortments looking for the less colorful ones, the quaint two- and three-cent ones in carmine or faded money-green that someone must have bought fifty years before he was born. He’d been the sort of kid to sniff old stamps, but they only smelled dry, like paper. Once, he had licked the back of a near-mint Washington carmine, to see what the glue would be like, and if it would still stick. It did, and it tasted the same as licking envelopes; after he’d pasted it into his book, he couldn’t get it back loose to mount it properly. Afterward, he skipped that page when perusing his collection.
Remembering this compounded the time-conflation, and even as he felt an affinity with the historian who worked and wrote here, a shudder ran down Bill’s spine as he looked through someone else’s letters. Timothy Schroeder’s, addressed like the others with only a name in a controlled, sober cursive, was decidedly aged, and bore a stamp not sold since the 50s. When he removed it from its envelope, the letter unfolded thin as an autumn leaf in his hands.
But he remembered why he was here: he should find somewhere more comfortable, to read this letter lying down. The living room only had armchairs. The short hallway revealed only half-open doors to a bathroom and more disused storage, two closed doors too narrow to be anything but closets, and a door at the end of the hall that must be the master bedroom. Sleeping in someone’s bed seemed more invasive than necessary, but stretching out on the living room rug would not do the job either.
Tucking the letter to Timothy in his breast pocket and readying the alarm on his cell—he thought he’d allow himself two full hours—he put his hand on the bedroom doorknob and turned. When it did not immediately open, he tried again, putting his weight into it. It fell open then, and a thin chorus of buzzing arose immediately and then subsided; he detected a foul undercurrent to the stirred air, like the mysterious black stuff his family’s dogs found in the fields to roll in. The room was dark, with all the shades pulled, and he was about to turn and leave and abandon the whole experiment when his hand, fumbling along the wall, found the light switch.
As the switch rocked under his finger, just at the point of catching, it fully dawned on Bill what he was likely to see, and he froze. If he stopped here, he realized, he could still turn around and leave the apartment, knowing nothing with any actionable certainty—but any further, and he would no longer be able to retreat in time to his current instant of not-knowing, before he had definitely seen. He inched his finger a millimeter back, and the switch remained poised where it was, no longer subject to gravity or his own touch or any force he could exert, equally capable of taking either the on or off position, but he swore he sensed it slipping away from the skin of his fingertip, influenced by its own unknowable mechanism sealed inside the wall.
The switch flipped, and a wave of light pulsed through the room, tiny bits of it rattling in and invading his retinas before he could look away.
Mr. Schroeder lay across the bed, beside an unzipped duffel. He was dressed in outdoor gear so new that the many-pocketed fishing vest still bore a price tag. A fly traversed the lapel of his half-buttoned white shirt, and another perched on his lower lip. He wore one unscuffed leather hiking boot untied, and the other lay at an angle on the floor, looking absurdly forlorn and forgotten with no foot in it. Bill’s cell slipped from his hand and thunked on the floor. Mr. Schroeder was clearly dead.
With a terrible fascination, Bill cataloged the physical details: a blue-green mottling creeping up the skin on the neck like tarnish on copper, the swollen, slightly protruding tongue like some halfhearted vulgar razzberry from the other side, a slick stain depending from the corner of the mouth. The smell of old, warm meat was almost palpable now as he backed away. Most horribly, the man’s eyes were mostly closed, but the lids looked deflated; a dark, brackish stain ran from the corners of each eye down to a sticky-looking spot on the pillow.
Pitty Sing sprang up to the bed, landing on the corpse’s hip. “Meow,” he said, batting at a passing fly. Bill thought he might never sleep again.